Wednesday, December 18, 2002

The Coming Aussie Actress Invasion of 1997, with a bonus Lord of the Rings discussion.

In the period from about 1995-97, the Australian film industry was going through one of its relatively good periods, and there were more local pictures in the cinemas than is usual. One thing that struck me was that at the time there seemed to be only five actresses working in the Australian industry: Rachel Griffiths, Toni Collette, Frances O'Connor, Miranda Otto, and slightly later, Cate Blanchett came along too. It seemed impossible to see an Australian film that did not contain some combination of these actresses. This actresses seemed to drown out everyone else for the simple reason that all five were actresses of very high quality: their performaces seemed in many instances larger than they actually four.

Inevitably, all of these actresses have gone on to have international careers of assorted magnitudes.

Cate Blanchett had a very brief career (in film, at least) in Australia. She made three films only: Paradise Road, Thank God he Met Lizzie (in which Frances O'Connor co-starred and who probably had the better role) and Oscar and Lucinda, the seriously underrated film of the Peter Carey novel. She then made Elizabeth for Shekhar Kapur, got an Oscar nomination, and has made a dazzling body of work since. She may not be the biggest star in the movies, but she is one of the best.

Frances O'Connor has a very magnetic and appealing screen presence, and lots of big people in both Britain and Hollywood looked at her, thought she might be a future star, and cast her in their movies. Her Hollywood movies have been a bit of a disappointment: the misfires of major filmmakers, generally. Spielberg cast her in A.I., she was opposite Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley in Harold Ramis' remake of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Bedazzled (the original was much better) and John Woo's Windtalkers was not such a great movie. Still, A-list directors continue to cast her: she is in Richard Donner's film of Michael Chrichton's Timeline to be seen next year. Plus she has carved out a parallel career of "British" movies, and has been rather more successful in those. She played Fanny Price in Patricia Rozema's sharply divisive adaptation of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park , very successfully played the lead in Madam Bovary for British television, and was a delight as Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest earlier this year. I am still not quite sure where her career is going, but I am still watching it.

Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths co-starred in Muriel's Wedding . Neither are quite glamorous enough to be Hollywood leading ladies, sadly, but both have been quite successful, none the less. Rachel Griffiths has done a huge body of work in the US and Britain. She received an Oscar nomination for playing the mother in The Sixth Sense , is one of those actresses I am constantly seeing puting in excellent performances in what are theoretically the less important roles. (This year I have seen her in important parts in Changing Lanes and About a Boy, plus no doubt also elsewhere). Rachel Griffiths received an Oscar nomination for Hilary and Jackie, and was wonderful as one of the Southern bitch bridesmaids on My Best Friend's Wedding a few years back, and has since then received considerable acclaim for her TV work on Six Feet Under . Her movies lately have been less interesting, perhaps because she has been only able to choose those films that she could fit into the hiatus of television shooting. Personally I would rather she spending less time doing series television and more time doing movies, but that might be just me.

The last actress is Miranda Otto. Otto comes from a famous acting family in Australia, and probably in 1997 had the highest reputation and profile in Australia of anyone in this list. (Probably the Austrlian film she was in that had the highest profile abroad was Love Serenade , which is something that festival goers and serious film buffs in New York, LA, or Chicago might have seen, but not much more than that). She is very good, indeed. Oddly, though, her non-Australian work has until this point had the lowest profile of any actress on this list. My personal thought is that I have seen her for a few minutes screen time in What Lies Beneath , the very uneven thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, and for a few seconds of Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line (which was filmed in Australia, so this may or may not count) and that is about it.

But, of course, one group of people who often do see Australian films are New Zealanders. And, as a consequence of this, Miranda Otto plays in Eowyn The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers , to be released today. Hopefully this means that Miranda Otto will subsequently be cast in bigger parts and better movies.

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